Less than five million of the Earth’s seven billion people will see the Grand Canyon this year. Of these tourists, less than one-third of one percent of these will make it below the rim. Even less will reach the bottom. From a very early age, I dreamed of hiking the Grand Canyon. I remember standing in awe of the vastness of the landscape and the small winding trail that I could trace with my eye zigzagging down to the river bottom. I remember clearly holding my fisher price camera as a scruffily looking hiker with a large pack made his way up the final stretch of the South Kaibab trail. He stopped for a moment and looked up and waved at my parents and I as well as the small crowd of his family members gathered at the top. He walked slowly and methodically, but would disappear now and again amongst the rocks. Soon, I saw him again but he was much closer. I could see the beads of sweat pouring down his face and his shear look of exhaustion. The top of the Grand Canyon looked to be just within his reach. As he climbed the final feet of trail, he bent over and kissed the ground. His family came rushing up to him and hugs were exchanged and high fives. He made it all the way to the bottom and back in the largest canyon on Earth. He felt like a celebrity to me and I took his picture surrounded by family and friends. Little did I know that over 20 years later, that would be me continuing in the footsteps of those who are drawn to the canyon.
It is 44F at 4:45am at Yavapai Lodge as I rise out of bed to a slight red glow on the horizon. I gather my pack and take time getting ready before heading down to breakfast at the cafeteria bright and early at 5:30. I am the first one to walk in the door and the food station is already manned and steaming with fresh eggs, sausage and French toast sticks. I grab my plate and gorge myself with nearly a dozen French toast sticks, eggs, sausage and potatoes. By 6am, the first group arrives in the cafeteria as I am just completing my meal. By 6:15am, the entire room is filled with multiple bus groups. What a difference an extra hour in the morning makes.
I head back to the car and gather my pack and head out to the shuttle stop to catch the morning bus to the trailhead. The shuttle arrives and I grab my seat next to another hiker in an already packed bus. As we all ride over to the trailhead, it is mostly quiet but as I look around, everyone seems to have a happy glow about them. It’s going to be a day of hiking! Several hikers are reading trail maps and one is working on changing an intricate camera lense. I look at the lense for a while thinking; “Man I’d love to have one like that!” Everyone else is chewing on bits of trail mix and other morning snacks. Then out of the corner of my ear I hear;
“Hey, where are you from?”
“New Jersey!” I exclaim as everyone looks over my way with an inquisitive stare.
“Wow cool mate! I’m from Australia!”
“First time here? I ask as I forward the conversation just to hear her accent.
“First time! I’m going to the bottom and back up, I hope.”
“You hope?” As I look back over laughing.
“Well I had two plates put in my leg from that sky diving accident a few months back. But it was still awesome! Ever go skydiving?”
“No, well not yet! But it’s on my life list for sure!”
And that is how I met my hiking companion Cate for the first several hours of the trip. She intrigued me from the start. There is a passion about hikers that is hard to describe. They enjoy life. They have an incredible wanderlust. They live in the moment. They are observant. They are incredibly excited to share their adventures. They like hiking alone, but at the same time want company. In the quiet sunrise of an October morning, I found a connection with someone who understands.
Soon the bus is unloading and I walk out with Cate out to the trailhead. Thinking that she will be heading off on the trail, I motion to say goodbye but before I can wave she says;
“Hey this is so exciting!!! Are we ready to get started!?”
“Absolutely! I think I am.” I smile not knowing what I just signed up for!
And we were off before we knew it walking down a dusty path of dreams together.
We talk all the way down through 400 feet of limestone, a 200 foot layer of fossils and over 300 feet of sandstone.
“I can’t believe we are actually doing this! We’re hiking the Grand Canyon!! This is so awesome!” Cate exclaims as she snaps a few pictures as we talk.
I’m amazed at Cate’s energy. Her smile has not erased since we met on the morning bus. She truly has a wanderlust spirit. But, beyond that, she enjoys the moment. In the first few hours of our hike, I never paid attention to my 30 pound backpack or the glue of red dust that was beginning to cover my leg. We just walk; happy and content in each other and just being in the moment. Time stands still. Before long we reach Skeleton Point through another half a billion years of geologic time.
“Hey want to rest a bit.” Cate exclaims as she puts down her backpack.”
“Definitely!” I take out a bottle of water and look over the canyon rim.
As the sun’s rays fill the canyon, Cate turns quiet for a moment as we look out across the vast landscape in front of us. It is as if there is a secret code for hikers on when to talk and when to take in nature. This was certainly one of those times. It is silent, except for the “scree-caw” of a hawk flying below us.
“Can you believe that!?” He’s flying below us.” Cate takes out her camera and snaps a few pictures. “Wow Sean this is incredible!”
As we look out towards the horizon, I relish the fact that I can share this moment with someone so passionate about life. From two souls over 10,000 miles away in geographic distance, we find ourselves sitting next to each other on a ledge in the middle of the Grand Canyon. All because I decided to have another plate of French toast sticks and arrive at the bus stop exactly 5 minutes after the bus I originally was going to take. Timing is a funny thing.
“Well it was nice meeting you!” I hope you have a wonderful rest of your hike.”
“You’re heading off!!!??? I look over in surprise.
“I wasn’t expecting to make it this far.” She starts to readjust her leg brace.
“Oh that’s right; your leg!” I exclaim, momentarily feeling a lapse of forgetfulness about the broken leg discussion earlier in the morning.
“Oh the leg is fine. Everyone just thought I was crazy for hiking the Grand Canyon.” Thank you Sean. This was so much fun! By just walking with me, you made me believe I could do this. I mean look, I’m hiking the Grand Canyon! Gosh I’m sure going to feel this tonight!
For a moment I was lost for words. “You’re definitely not crazy. Well hey maybe we’re both crazy!”
“Nah man have fun, ok!? Hey don’t forget sunscreen! And take lots more pictures!!! You’re going to have so much fun!” She exclaims and gives me a wink.
She gives me a hug and a kiss on the cheek and starts back up the canyon. Before my thoughts move away from the beauty of the canyon and what a wonderful hike we had together, she is hiking hundreds of feet above me on the ledge. I wave and she waves back. She takes out her camera playfully and takes a picture of me with the canyon in the background. Before I get a chance to look up again, she is completely out of sight. It doesn’t take long for the silence of the canyon walls returns. I feel suddenly alone. The trail lays in front me, but I sit there for 30 minutes thinking about whether I should continue the hike. Do I have enough water? Will my legs hold up for the climb back up? Will I slip? What about the weather? The energy of companionship goes much further that just experiencing life together.
By now my feet are dusty so I take off my shoes and empty a soft red dust out of my boots. It is almost midday so I snap a few pictures at Skeleton Point and start down the vast ledge that will make up my final two thousand foot decent into the canyon. The sun is now warm and I take off my parka from earlier this morning. In a matter of a few hours and 3000 vertical feet, the temperature has risen from 44F to nearly 80F. The microclimates of the Grand Canyon are nothing short of amazing. I am still walking forward, perhaps a bit slower and more cautious on my feet.
As I approach a set of steep switchbacks, it begins to sink in that with every step I take, I am walking back through a million years of earth history. Like a vast video rewinder, I am walking on rocks that are progressively older. Humans have been in the Grand Canyon for roughly the last 12,000 years, a mere geologic blink. If there is ever a place to feel small in the world, this is it. Time as we know it is a simple grain of sand in the history of the Earth. How long humans will remain here is up to us, nature, and ultimately God. We do know that there will be an end. The sun, like all stars, will use up all its available hydrogen and become a red giant, effectively erasing away Mercury and Venus in perhaps 5 billion years. The temperatures will rise to the point of being inhospitable, much like Venus today. Yet, in the perspective of the universe, the life of a star or a planet for that matter is just an astronomical grain of sand. This time scale is impossible for us to grasp. Time as we know it is seemingly irrelevant.
I periodically find myself looking over the ledge at the vast drop offs to the Colorado River. This is certainly not a place to misstep. Littered alongside the trail next to the cliff are boulders that look so precariously balanced on the ledge that even a wisp of dust might knock them half a mile down through the air. The trail narrows and in some sections hugs right against the canyon walls. The ground is parched and every footprint disturbs a clump of red dust that whisks away over the cliff edge as I walk. Under one ledge, I find the methodical drip of water trickling over the rock, creating a muddy seam down its face. This life water is the reason the canyon looks as it does today. I sit for a moment and watch the water trickle trying to grasp a sense of the time scales involved in creating the canyon. It seems I can relate to the rthym of the water much better than that of the rock. The rhythms of this place are coming alive in front of me.
Mules!! As I round a bend, I hear the methodical clump clump clump of a mule train heading back up the canyon. I move off to the far side and nod as the wrangler and group of pack mules clops on by. One of the mules has a leather sack which reads “outbound mail, carried by mule.” Not much has changed here in the last 150 years. They continue their slow march up the canyon, carrying a slow whirling clump of dust into the dry October air.
Before long I reach the suspension bridge over the Colorado River. The river looks surprisingly tame to have carved such a great canyon and it is very muddy with silt from the monsoon rains last month. I stop over the bridge and take out my binoculars and scan downriver and then back up through the canyon. As I scan along the canyon rim I can see little dots walking along the rim trail over a mile above me. Somewhere way above me, thousands of tourists are getting out of their cars and snapping pictures of the Grand Canyon. The view along the rim is certainly breathtaking, but the view standing over the Colorado looking up is nothing short of amazing. Every panoramic camera in the world could not capture the view from this bridge. Layers upon layers of deep colored rock surround me in every direction. The water moves in a seemingly tame way below me. As I look up, I decide to wave up at the canyon rim, hoping Cate is watching me make the descent. In the majesty of one of the greatest wonders of the world, I feel seemingly alone.
It is now just before 4pm and it has taken me over 8 hours to descend the canyon; a hike that normally would take closer to 4 or 5. As I reach Phantom Ranch, I am welcomed back into civilization with a flurry of hikers, and the sweet smell of steak cooking over the fire. A few hikers are talking on their cell phones and one has his iPad out and is taking pictures of himself. I chuckle for a moment thinking that if man could somehow hike over the surface of the moon, the first thing he would do is take a selfie and call a friend. I’m not convinced technology will replace the experience Cate and I had for those short few hours this morning.
The Phantom Ranch dining room feels like an oasis in the middle of the desert. I guess technically it really is. There are vending machines, telephones and even a small gift shop. Dinner is served promptly at 5pm. It is a hearty meal of steak, baked beans and potatoes. I am surprisingly not too hungry but devour all that is on my plate. I meet a group that is hiking rim to rim and we chat about trail conditions, sunsets and snakes.
After dinner, I set my pack down in my dorm and go through its contents. Outside of water, some granola bars and my camera, I largely didn’t use the other 28 pounds of gear. Much of it is survival gear and emergency first aid; things that fall to the back of your mind but resurface every time the trail narrows to as wide as your waist. The Grand Canyon is not a hospitable place for the unprepared. The National Park Service reports 282 search and rescue missions alone in 2012; nearly one a day during the busy season. Separate to this is over 1000 “emergency medical service incidents” involving minor to moderate medical concerns. On average, there appears to be one fatality a month. Most are falls. For the most part, one slip will land you air-born over hundreds of feet of rock. There have been miraculous survivors though. In 2010, an 18 year old man fell off the canyon rim nearly 75 feet, succumbing to only moderate wrist, ankle and neck injuries. The very next year, another man mysteriously drove 200 feet over the cliff and his car lodged in a tree over a 500 foot precipice. He walked out of the car, onto the trail and hiked back out. A year later, a man hiking fell 200 feet-the height of a 20 story skyscraper-and survived; albeit with severe injuries. There must be something to the fact that we all have a designated time on this Earth and a purpose we must fulfill before leaving.
It is now 8pm and outside of Phantom Ranch, the shadows of a late evening storm can be seen in the far distance. A deep dark cloud- perhaps 75 miles away- reveals the occasional flash of lightning as it fans out across the canyon. A soft echo of thunder can be heard but the storm is weakening rapidly and succumbing to the colder air penetrating the canyon. A soft wind picks up and the outline of the setting sun illuminates the upper walls of the canyon. Before long, the sun disappears but the light on the canyon walls remains; an echo of beauty in transition to the canyon night. I walk back out to the Colorado River Bridge alone. As the light begins to fade across the canyon, I see the flicker of lights on the canyon rim of El Tovar and Bright Angel. Somewhere up there Cate is spending the evening alone looking down at me; 10000 miles away from her home. I wonder for a moment if I should have hiked back up with her. We could have talked some more, perhaps over dinner. Between our talks on Kaibab limestone and photography and travels, I thought I had heard her say she was planning to move to New York City. I have always wondered why people enter my life quite randomly and seemingly disappear. It is as if we were two books meant to be placed next to each other at the library. But both are checked out at different times, and only return to find the other long gone in the arms of another reader. Perhaps somewhere in a Barnes and Noble coffee shop, she will pick up a copy of my book and read this story about her. What a “how did we meet” story that would be! Or perhaps our chance encounter was just to motivate each other to achieve our dreams of hiking the Grand Canyon. I wonder if she thinks of me. Our souls radiated that day.
One year later, I returned to the Kaibab almost to the day in October. I passed a young Australian girl I talked to for a few minutes who looked and talked exactly like Cate. For a moment, I thought it was her and eagerly asked if she happened to have been in the Grand Canyon exactly a year ago. It wasn’t her but she had the same wandering spirit and excitement. We continued in opposite directions chasing the same dream. Perhaps the biggest tragic flaw in free spirit personalities is just that-the free spirit aspect. So many of us solo travelers remain alone when there are so many entering their lives which share the same dream. If only the timing could be the same.
As night falls, I retreat to my dorm and talk with a few of my roommates for a while. One has somehow brought a banjo all the way down the canyon and he proceeds to play with reckless abandon. We laugh, smile and enjoy good company. In the heart of the largest canyon on Earth, the human heartbeat is strong.
Morning comes quickly and early. At 4:45am, a staff member knocks on the door and as I pear outside, the sound of mules can already be heard along with the scent of fresh eggs. We all arise and walk over for breakfast at 5am sharp. It is much quieter this morning as most of the hikers intently eat their breakfast. Perhaps a bit of nerves have set in; all will be climbing a 5000 foot stairway to the canyon rim. As we finish our breakfast, I rush off to take some early morning sunrise pictures. The light slowly rises through the canyon piercing a thick fog one thousand feet below the canyon rim. If there is ever an image of heaven this is it. The fog slowly scatters across the deep canyon walls and the sun shines through warming the ambient morning air. With my eye, I trace the path of the trail up as it winds up through billions of years of rock. It will be an invigorating day.
Like a military convoy, we all grab our packs and set off on the massive stairway up the canyon. I cross the Colorado and begin the first set of switchbacks. Within 5 minutes, beads of sweat appear on my forehead and I look up at the vast scale of what lies in front of me. Imagine climbing stairs for an hour straight while carrying a 30 pound lead brick. That would be the first of over 8 hours.
With every step, a cloud of dust rises and blows off the ledge, disappearing into the vast canyon below. No matter how lightly I tread, the dust finds its way into my shoes and covers my leg with a fine red coating. It finds its way into my pack and I periodically stop and pat myself down of this annoyance. Yet, years later, I would go through my old pack and find a coating of this deep red dust at the bottom of an inner pocket. It is amazing how just a little dust can reinvigorate your desire to return to a place year after year.
It is not long before the line of hikers disappears as everyone begins to find their pace ascending the canyon. Soon I am all alone. I think about Cate for the next mile, my mind drifts away from my sweaty brow, dusty feet and increasingly painful leg muscles. As my mind begins to calm, I find myself walking with more purpose and rhythm. I have found my pace, at least for now, but still periodically check my watch to make sure I am on time. Like it would matter if I reached my car at 5:10pm instead of 5pm. Constant motion always seems to draw you to the present and away from the rhythms of the canyon. Even in a vast wilderness, it is hard to stay in the present. The loud beep of my lightning detector reminds me it is midday in October and I am 300 feet below Skeleton Point.
Within minutes a large thunderstorm fans out on the western horizon. The echo of thunder seems to reverb back and forth between the canyon walls. I put my pack down and crouch against the canyon wall as the rain begins to fall. For a moment, I think about moving to a less-exposed corner of the trail, but water is already running down the middle of the trailhead. I stay put for a good 10 minutes until the storm fans out towards the east. As soon as it appears, it is gone and the sun returns. A deep red mud coats the middle of the trail and a thick fog appears and rises from the depths of the canyon. I get back up and continue on to Skeleton Point, roughly half way up the canyon. The rest the storm brings is refreshing.
As I walk, I pass through sections of deep fog that seem to temporary hide the canyon floor and much the landscape below me. At times, I pass right through the fog on the trail and I can see it fanning out in all directions into the vast abyss. There is a mystic about fog that is hard to describe. Bethany Hanlon in her travel memoir Toilet Paper for Peanuts has one of the best characterizations of fog I have seen. She sees fog as a lense which allows us to focus on the details without overwhelming the psyche with sensory overload. In her vivid description of her visit to Leeds Castle in England, the fog brought the castle’s details to life and framed the essence of the place. Likewise, this image of fog was very true this day. For the mile through Skeleton Point, I focused on the deep colors of the rocks around me and the outline of the trail which danced in and out of the fog. As I hike up, it is as if the fog softens the terrain and makes it easier to climb. When I climb out of the fog bank, I find myself wishing for another thunderstorm. But I am only half way up, and without the fog, the landscape returns to its rugged form.
Beyond Skeleton Point, the trail levels off and becomes surprisingly easy as it crosses a wide plateau. I begin to see several day hikers who have made it half-way down the canyon by midday. Fearing another storm, I keep pace and soon reach the first of a series of switchbacks that will take me back up the canyon.
The wind begins to pick up and periodically whirls the red dust of the trail into my face and throughout my pack. It does not take long to hike back into a dry landscape. It is as if the storm dumped out all of its rain just below Skeleton Point. Within an hour the sky has completely cleared.
As I continue walking, the landscape around me becomes more vast; more encompassing. Not only is there a 360 degree view below me, but the depth of the canyon can fully be appreciated from the half way point. It is a place on the trail where Edward Abbey of Desert Solitaire might describe as the point where the tangible meets the mythical.
The last few miles of the trail go surprisingly easy. My heart rate seems to have found its uphill rhythm and I am not overly sweaty. After a day and a half, I seemed to have found a good hiking speed but I am certainly moving slowly. The inner canyon disappears and the landscape begins to transition back to the Junipers and occasional Ponderosa Pine of the high plateau. Before I realize it, I am back on top in a flurry of tourists and day hikers. Before I even had a chance to think about taking a few pictures right below the rim, the hike abruptly ends. I look at my watch and it is 5:45pm. In a world so content to count time, I relish the fact I was 45 minutes late.
As I walk back to my car, my mind races back to my chance encounter with Cate yesterday half way down the South Kaibab trail. I wish we had traded contact information. Perhaps she is staying in the park another week like I am, and we will meet another day on another trail. In the brief hours we spent together, we connected on a level I have never experienced for someone so seemingly random. In the midst of hiking solo, I found the importance of connecting trails.
I have hiked in the Grand Canyon three times since meeting Cate. Every time, I can feel her vibrant energy as I walk down the first several miles of the trail. When I feel pain, I think about her leg and the pain she might have experienced hiking those miles with me. Yet, she never let me know. As we started our hike together, she trusted me to help achieve her dream. We made it-together. Our fears disappeared through a simple “We can do this.” If this can happen with a complete stranger, why is it so difficult with the people we love and are closest to us? Too many relationships end because both partners believe their dreams are seemingly different. But are they really? Perhaps what is really missing is the trust, love and support that anything is possible when you walk together; hand- in- hand. You don’t have to share the same exact dream.
Very often as well, the greatest barrier to our own dreams is us. We spent so much time doubting our abilities both physically and mentally. We worry and overthink and listen to negative thoughts from others. We are scared to share our dreams with others on the fear that they might be too crazy or too unrealistic. We are afraid no one understands what drives us. So we walk alone with walls. Yet, dreams are not achieved solo. You do not need someone that shares all of your dreams. But, you do need someone to walk with you who believe they can happen.
When I dreamed of hiking the Grand Canyon nearly twenty years ago, I imagined a feat of endurance focused on physical stamina and ability. Later on, I dreamed of seeing the canyon from below the rim; a scene that a small fragment of the world’s population will see. I wanted to take photographs and reflect on the Earth’s geologic history. Yet.as my footsteps met the sand, my dream changed. It became the walk with Cate through 500 million years of geologic time. It became the shelter of an unexpected storm. It became the walk to the Colorado River under the setting sun. Let life happen and find a Cate to walk with you. Your dreams will take care of themselves.